What Does ‘Perfect’ Mean?


Do we focus on the withered edges, or on the beauty at the heart?

“Be ye perfect,” the Savior said,

like our Father in heaven.

It seems too bold a thought, at first,

And then—impossible!

How shall we aspire to this,

we mortals marred by flaws,

full of fears and weakness,

incapable of good at times

because we lack the will,

or stamina of spirit.

We do not have it in us

to conquer every sin,

or even our own doubts.

It seems sacrilege, damning pride,

to think the very thought

that “perfect” is possible.


And yet—it was His command.

There was no qualifying word,

no “if,” or “almost,” but only: “Be ye.”

He would not have said it

if the goal were beyond all hope,

or the mere thought forbidden.


What, then, does “perfect” mean?

The best of humankind

Is like the flower of summer,

with striking beauty at first sight,

but flaws and withered spots

on closer, careful view.

We cannot feed from

common mortal soil

without developing

earth-borne impurity of sin,

nor bask in burning sun

without the sometime searing

of our tenderest parts.

These flaws and lasting damage

we alone cannot repair.


And yet—it was a firm command,

with no deadline,

preceded by directions

to prepare us for the task.

Be meek and humble.

Hunger and thirst after good.

Be merciful, seek peace,

“let your light so shine”

that it brings glory to our Father.

Let go of even precious things

when they become stumbling blocks.

Love your enemies—yes,

even that is required.



When we admire finished beauty, do we recognize that we are still in the bud?

We are not as He.

How dare we even think it?

And yet—how could we tell Him no?


He bought us with a price.

He will mend the flaws,

forgive the glaring sin

if we but offer up

our stubborn, prideful will.

In everlasting patience

He lets us do the work

step by daily step.

But in His command

is the direction to begin.


This is not a project

to be finished in a day,

nor in the coming year.

It will be consuming labor

for all eternity.


But in this task for coming eons,

we shall begin today.

What’s in Your Handcart?


Historic painting of handcart pioneers by LDS artist C.C.A. Christensen.

A few days ago, someone I respect and admire shared feelings of failure and lack of self-worth for not being able to handle the pressing burdens of life. They are the common burdens of everyday mortality—conflicts between work and home responsibilities, too little money, too few hours in the day. But to each of us at one time or another, they may seem overwhelming. We may feel that we just do not measure up.

I wish this person could look into the mirror of the soul and see inherent strengths and progress already made. But I know all too well the temptation to feel lacking on the inside—wholly inadequate for life. Nevertheless, I have learned from experience, and I want my friend to know this: You are far stronger and more accomplished than you are seeing right now. You are winning, not losing. You have what is needed to gain the victory.

Each summer Mormon youth throughout the world take part in handcart treks commemorating the 1,100-mile journey of Latter-day Saint pioneers across the Great Plains of the United States. In the 1850s, many converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived from Europe with almost nothing. Thousands of them took part in the westward migration over what was named the Mormon Trail, ending in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Often they were too poor to be outfitted with wagons and teams, so many groups made the trek on foot pulling or pushing two-wheeled handcarts that held everything they owned.

One of the groups, the Martin-Willie Handcart Company, became famous for the tragedy that befell them when they were trapped on the plains of Wyoming in October by an early winter storm. Many froze to death before they could be rescued. But other handcart companies made the trek over the years without the notice of the world in general. Men, women, and children pulled and pushed their handcarts day after day despite fatigue or pain or thirst or debilitating illness. There was no choice but to push onward over rocky, sometimes steep, terrain in burning sun or cutting wind. For more than 100 days, they moved toward and longed for their new home in the West. For some in the lesser-known groups, death on the plains was also the end of the journey. But the company moved on.

Young people who make those commemorative treks today know that after a few days of pulling or pushing their two-wheeled carts, they will return to comfortable homes, to a world with running water and cell phones. The pioneers had only a vision awaiting them—a distant Zion of the future. Perhaps occasionally on their trek they would get a glimpse of its beauty in the mind’s eye or a feel of its joy in the heart. Those were moments to cherish. But mostly, the trek was marked by labor and struggle that must have seemed like it would never end. Some they lightened their loads by throwing out of their carts things that had once seemed precious or important to them.

One pioneer said later that they came to know God in the “extremities” of their trials. A survivor of the Martin company asserted: “The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.” Some would later tell of a day or an hour when they determined that they simply could go no farther. The next clump of sagebrush, the next rock outcropping, the top of the rise was their limit; at that point they would fall victims finally to exhaustion. And then, when they reached that critical point, suddenly they would feel unseen hands pushing the cart, and they knew angels were lending their strength to the task.

When we look back on their sacrifices, we often count ourselves blessed because we have not been called on to endure their tests. But the truth is that we are all, each one of us, engaged in our own trek across the thirsty, trying plains of mortality. We each are carrying in our carts the weight of things that have seemed important or essential in some way. I cannot know all you are carrying in your cart—the weight of pains or weaknesses or griefs—and you cannot know all that is in mine. Perhaps each one of us needs to reevaluate our load. Maybe something that once seemed essential is no longer needed. Maybe something we once chose is actually dead weight holding us back. Maybe we need to throw it out and leave it on the plains. We might need a savior, a redeemer—the Lord Jesus Christ—to help us shed some of these burdens of guilt.

But it is not for me to say what you should get rid of or what you must carry in your cart.

I can only observe the progress of other travelers with regard to where we all began the journey. And I want to say to that person I love, “You can do this. Look back for a moment; see how far you have come. Look ahead. You have already conquered obstacles like these, and you are constantly getting stronger on the journey.”

You are not failing, and you are not alone. Your Eternal Father knows exactly where you are on this trek. He is pleased with your effort, and he can lovingly send help—even unseen help—when he knows you need it most.

For now, keep going, knowing that you are on your way to victory. Your spiritual muscles may be sore and the way ahead may look stormy. But you are doing well, growing stronger, and you have protection that you cannot see. The struggle is not over—but all is well.



Dilemma of a Conservative Voter

My official vote-by-mail ballot came today, and now I will be forced to commit to a choice for president. Tonight I am still not sure who will get my vote.

But I am absolutely certain who will not.

Hillary Clinton provokes, first and foremost in my mind, skepticism. For decades she and her husband have behaved as though the rules that apply to ordinary mortals do not apply to them. She has been politically opportunistic, willing to say all the right things that will win votes. Like many liberal politicians, she seems to believe that the solution to every social problem is more government. Her proposed solutions to some problems may sound good in principle, but they’re too fuzzy on specifics. Yes, for example, every citizen should enjoy the same civil rights. But for some citizens, deeply held moral beliefs come into conflict with governmental solutions, as in the case of same-sex marriage. Who will protect the civil rights of those of us whose deeply held beliefs and faith make it impossible to accept what is currently “correct” social thinking? Does Mrs. Clinton simply say, “Tough luck, abandon your faith and fall into line”? And yes, it’s obvious that we have a problem in this country with guns getting into the wrong hands. But just who is going to decide which of us gets to exercise the constitutional right to own weapons for hunting or self-defense, and what type of weapons?

For me, Mrs. Clinton represents those who believe that individual liberty must give way to the common good—the common good, that is, as they in their more enlightened thinking happen to see it. This is suppression of freedom of thought by legal pressure. Voting for her would be troubling.

But voting for Donald Trump would be frightening—absolutely unthinkable. I have been observing or voting in U.S. elections since Eisenhower versus Stevenson in 1956. In all of those years, Donald Trump is the least effective, most unstable, most dangerous presidential candidate I have seen.

Much is being made of the behind-the-scenes revelations in the leaked emails from the Democratic campaign. These offer maddening evidence of political machinations. And yet—few people seem concerned that this information was stolen to be used by outsiders who would like to influence our national election. There seems to be solid evidence that it was stolen and is being leaked by Russian hackers. Vladimir Putin denies any knowledge (wink, wink), but insists that Americans just need to look at all that evidence against Mrs. Clinton. Just look! And now, one of Putin’s key supporters in Russia is making threatening noises about the possibility of nuclear war if Americans don’t elect Donald Trump. I just can’t bring myself to vote for the candidate favored by Moscow.

Bill Clinton’s shameless infidelity in the White House is raised as a criticism of Hillary. I have heard no good explanation as to how she somehow “enabled” him. In my mind, his betrayals of trust 20 years ago—not only betrayals of his wife, but also of the American people—make him the second most dishonest president I have ever seen, after Richard Nixon. And it’s likely that Mrs. Clinton took out some of her anger on the other women involved. But how does Bill Clinton’s guilt give Donald Trump a pass on his disgusting moral behavior? We have Trump’s own words and actions to show us how he feels about and treats women. His wrongs to his spouses are on the public record. He says his situation is different because he wasn’t in the White House at the time. Seriously? He says it was just “locker room” talk. Well, I remember hearing some of that in the locker room among a few of the guys back when I was in junior high—but not among mature men. And why do the words of Bill Clinton’s accusers seem to carry weight with some people but not the words of Donald Trump’s current accusers? Any man who treats women as Trump has and does should face the penalties of law, not be elected to enforce the law from the Oval Office. Obviously, he feels his wealth gives him power to do to others whatever he wants.

Hillary Clinton blamed her husband’s troubles years ago on some vast right-wing conspiracy. Today, Donald Trump blames his troubles on some press conspiracy with the Clintons. The master manipulator who knows how to grab headlines every day with some fresh controversy whines when the press does not write what he wants. He has tried to bar news organizations or reporters he does not like from events that need to be reported. However flawed and erratic our communications media might be, they’re the best we have as citizens to keep us informed about what our government is doing. But Trump would like to control what the media are allowed to tell us. That is a common tactic in dictatorships. Moreover, Mr. Trump has said that he would stop or limit acceptance of some immigrants into the U.S. because of their religion. If he can use the power of government to target one religion, he can target any other. Donald Trump is the very reason that the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment into the Constitution, with its protection of the freedoms of religion and of the press.

His facile characterization of Mexican immigrants is simplistic and ignorant, and his stubborn insistence on a border wall is ridiculous. I grew up largely in South Texas and went to high school about 10 miles from Mexico. The wall is an idea that would never work. Its most likely result would be to create new jobs—for the skilled tunnel builders on the south side of the Rio Grande. Immigration is a vexing, complex problem that needs a cooperative solution, but Mr. Trump does not seem capable of complex philosophical thought.

He mocks people for their looks and physical disabilities. (As someone born with a very visible defect, I take that a bit personally.) He continues to deny saying certain embarrassing things even in the face of printed reports and audio or video clips that prove otherwise. His wealth depends largely on marketing his name—his brand. How is that supposed to produce jobs? He offers little concrete information to back up his promises. He still dodges questions by pointing fingers at his opponent and his opponent’s husband. Just once I’d like to hear a detailed answer. He has refused to renounce violence by his supporters, and now some have floated dangerous talk of revolution if he is not elected.

No. No! This is not a man who can represent the country I love as it deserves to be represented.

If not Hillary or Donald, then who?

The Libertarian candidate does not seem to have a grasp of world affairs. The Green party seems focused only on certain issues, and not the full range of challenges that face our nation. In my own state, latecomer Evan McMullin seems to offer an alternative congenial to my beliefs. But at this point can he have any impact in the national election?

Sometimes I ask myself, “Where are the statesmen and stateswomen we deserve in public office?” And the answer that comes is frightening: Maybe these are the candidates we deserve. Maybe we are asking government to serve our individual or group self-interests to such an extent that the only people who will step up are those willing to promise anything and do whatever is necessary to assure their own aggrandizement.

I am not a follower of conservative television personality and writer Glenn Beck, but in opposing Donald Trump, he said recently that if Hillary is elected, she can at least be closely watched and fought in the political arena. I agree. Donald Trump, on the other hand—and this is my own opinion—is the petulant teenager whose tantrum in the White House could do significant damage to the republic and to national security before anyone could stop him.

This is a painful choice, but for the first time in more than 50 years of marking a ballot, I cannot bring myself to vote for the Republican candidate for president. I have to look elsewhere.


Among Believers

Lunenburg 27Jn16_02977B

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Our worship service was a bit different last Sunday. It involved seven people balanced on the edges of beds or on hard chairs in a small hotel room in St. John’s, New Brunswick. We came from three different countries and four different faiths.

What the seven of us had in common was belief in Jesus Christ and a desire to worship Him on the Sabbath. We met in that hotel room at the invitation of a Presbyterian minister from Illinois traveling with our tour group. He followed the order of worship he would have followed at his pulpit back home that day.

Those of us in that room could have found doctrinal differences, I am sure, if we had chosen to discuss them. Instead, what we found together was comfort in the knowledge that through the Lord Jesus Christ we all may be forgiven of our sins and become better followers of His.

In several cities during this trip, my wife and I have seen many people who appear to be wandering aimlessly in life. They seem to know how to fill their days with activity, but not how to fill their lives with growth and useful experiences.

Lunenburg 27Jn16_02991BAnd yet we have met others who find fulfillment in giving of themselves. In our tour group, these included the outdoorsman who has spent many years in lifesaving on Australian beaches, and the teacher who uses music to help young people through their educational and emotional struggles. The minister and his wife are also among those people who purposefully give to others. While he and I might have differences on theological themes, I have to admire his willingness to share the knowledge of God with others. In that he is an example to me.

In high school, an agnostic friend of mine once said that Hell is every church’s gift to every other church. He was too cynical, I think, and too inexperienced to see how good can draw people together no matter what their backgrounds. I believe in a loving, caring Heavenly Father who will reward every one of His Children for the good we do, no matter what church we attend.

On a personal level, some doctrinal differences matter very much to me. I dare not minimize the principles of faith to which I am committed. Belief in those principles has shaped every crucial decision in my life. Trying to live those principles is making me a better disciple of Christ. I will hold them dear even as many in the world abandon them, and even if my beliefs are challenged and mocked.

Lunenburg 27Jn16_02982BBut I do not believe that God reserves His blessings only for those who share my doctrinal views and my church affiliation. Experience teaches that there are many upstanding people of other churches—or of no church—who are intent on doing good to those around them. Surely God will answer the prayers of any of His children who desire righteousness. Often we mortals simply need to work on understanding the wisdom of His answer, be it “Yes,” “No,” or “Follow the counsel I have already given in my holy scriptures.” Sometimes the answer may be, “Are you ready to follow the direction I will give you through my Holy Spirit?” Jesus Christ wasn’t just leading us on when He taught that if we ask in faith, we will receive (Matthew 21:22).

So on a Sunday far from home, we were grateful to be among a group of believers—people who believe in asking for His blessings, and who have the faith to receive.

Caught in the Rush-hour Traffic of Life

Crawling along in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic, covering less than 15 miles in an hour, provokes some interesting thoughts. The first is, “I’m never coming back to this place. How can people have lives here if they have to commute like this every day?”
Another thought is that people caught in this colossal waste of time are indifferent to anyone outside the small enclosures of their vehicles, or worse, they are angry at anyone in their way. For example, the woman in the next car is busily texting while she creeps along. The guy in the plumbing truck behind us makes angry faces and gestures because I’m not going fast enough for him, and finally finds a way to creep past us on the side. The guy in the Mercedes weaving in and out of traffic cuts people off and risks involving others in an accident just so he can pull a couple of cars ahead.
Nope. I’m never coming back to Boston again.
But I shouldn’t blame Boston for this. I’ve been in similar situations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, São Paulo, London, Tokyo, and Accra. I’m not trying to drop names here; the point is that in today’s world, clogged traffic like this is a common human experience.
And where are we really when we’re all stuck in traffic?
In Tokyo, I saw a mother and daughter come out of a subway train walking side by side, each furiously texting someone else. If one had disappeared, I’m not sure the other would have known.
How often am I, and how often are you, self-absorbed like that? How often are we oblivious to anything outside our small enclosure of personal space?
I could not undertake to judge any of the people I saw in that situation. Maybe the woman texting in traffic was multi-tasking—arranging an activity for her daughter’s school or keeping in touch with a son home alone. Maybe the man in the plumbing truck was in a rush to get to someone’s broken water line. Maybe the man weaving through traffic had a family emergency.
And if I can’t judge the people around me, what should I be doing with my time? Maybe I ought to be thinking about how I could reach out to others.
That was part of the miracle of the life of Jesus Christ. He knew and tried to meet the needs of others around him, no matter His own needs or wants.
If I want to think of myself as one of His followers, perhaps I need to break out of the walls of my own little enclosure and think about how I could help others get through the stop-and-go traffic of life.

Remembering Those Who Served

Hand on wallMy mother’s older brother was in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed. “I was running along Battleship Row while they [the Japanese] were sinking them,” he wrote in a one-page account I found in my mother’s papers after she died. When the attack started, Uncle Eddie had been sent to shore in a motor launch to fetch the officers for his ship; he had to swim for his life when shrapnel blew a hole in the bow of the launch.

My father, like many young men his age, felt the call to serve and joined the Navy in early 1942. He, two of his brothers, and my mother’s two brothers all served during the war. One fought his way across Europe with the infantry. One was a bombardier over Europe. One served with an Allied force in Russia. My father was accepted in Officers Candidate School and was commissioned an ensign on the day I was born. There is some strange irony, I suppose, in the fact that he saw less combat action than the others, then was killed in a car accident only a few months after coming home to civilian life when the war ended.

I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s with a stron
g sense of gratitude for what they had sacrificed to make the world safer for my generation.

I knew veterans who served in Korea. I had friends who fought, and in two cases died, in Vietnam. I know others who have fought in wars since then. Many of them don’t get the respect they deserve for their willingness to sacrifice in defense of liberty—their own and that of others. Many who came home from Vietnam were treated cruelly and shamefully by people who should have celebrated their safe return.

Let it be clear that I am not saying we should celebrate war, in victory or loss. War is a terrible failure of the human spirit on the grandest scale. It is a great evil that ought to be eliminated. It is often brought on by evil in the arrogant, grasping hearts of those who crave power. Wars may be justified at times by patriots, but the combat is frequently mismanaged and manipulated by misguided politicians who ought to bear at least some of 3 GIsthe blame for the waste of lives. While others may disagree, I have come to see the war we fought in Vietnam in that light.

But I have deep respect for the veterans who fought it. They served no matter their feelings about the conflict and its causes. Like my father and his generation, they were willing to put everything on the line when their country needed them. Those who have served in the Middle East and Afghanistan have seen their duty clear even when the cause might have been murky.

Let us honor them—all of them—equally for their courage and sacrifice. It does not matter in which conflict they gave “the last full measure of devotion,” to quote Mr. Lincoln at BinghamGettysburg. Whether they laid down their lives on the battlefield or came home to continue contributing in civilian life, we owe them our thanks and respect. No one should question their devotion to freedom. They stepped up when they were called. For that alone, we owe them thanks.

That is what I will be thinking about this Memorial Day.


“It’s a Matter of Perspective”

How many times have you heard the saying? Some lessons in life and some insights do indeed depend on your perspective.

COB Flower 12My16_00180Those who know me know that I always carry a small, good quality camera with me, especially when Mrs. S. and I are out walking or traveling. (My children would be surprised to see Dad without a camera.) This way, I can capture moments that may come only once.

Yesterday, the flower in front of the downtown office building, spotlighted by the sun, made such a moment. It was another of so many wonderful gifts from Heavenly Father, who has the scientific expertise to design complex, interlocking ecosystems that support life on earth and who endows them with beauty at the same time.

The impact of the flower when I saw it was momentarily stunning—arresting. I was on my way to a meeting, but had to stop and take time to savor this gift.

From the perspective in this photo, the flower is beautiful. If I were to blow up the photo, you would easily see that the flower has tiny imperfections and small damaged spots. But why focus on those? Why not enjoy the effect of the whole?

Why not look at things as Heavenly Father, or our Savior Jesus Christ, would see them? Do we not each hope that Jesus, who paid such an excruciating price to own us as our Redeemer, will see us as the whole that we can be rather than focusing on the many imperfections we carry? Indeed, through Him, the imperfections can be erased if we put our roots down into His doctrine and accept the light of His Atonement in our lives.

Ducks 13My16_00188On this morning’s walk, I literally “got my ducks in a row” in one photograph. Disturbed by our near approach, the ducks formed up and followed their leader to what they considered safer ground. It was a metaphor captured in megabytes. It reminds me of the Savior’s comment that He would gather His followers as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings to protect them, if only we would follow. What is there in our lives that prevents us from following? Can we get that obstacle out of the way?

Duckling 13My16_00196One fuzzy little duckling we noticed on this morning’s walk was having trouble making its way around the large rocks on the lake’s shore. For the duckling, they were huge boulders. It would have been no great difficulty to move the rocks out of the way—but would that have benefited the duckling? Sometimes I think Heavenly Father watches lovingly as we labor with obstacles in our lives. He knows that this will help us learn and grow stronger. He wants us to ask His help. When we do, He may not remove the boulders in our path, but He will surely guide us as we learn to overcome them. The trials that may be painful for us now will bring blessings in the end. I do not say this just to dismiss difficulties with a platitude. I have had my share of painful trials, but I have lived long enough now to see some of the blessings that have come out of them.

So many things truly are a matter of perspective. We look, but are we seeing the whole picture?